By Luke Power
What do you get when you cross 40,000 tennis balls (not all played with at the same time!) and a city that was founded by somebody proudly named John Batman? No, not a sporty rip-off of a DC comic – the Australian Open.
The Open returns to Melbourne on 20 January, promising thrills, spills and, one would hope, jaw-dropping tennis. Whilst the traditional royalty graces the court with as much elegance and prowess as ever, there are in the hat numerous outsiders who will hope to be on the smiling end of a mighty upset.
Several high-profile names are absent from 2020’s first grand slam, including US Open champion Bianca Andreescu in the women’s draw. Kei Nishikori, Juan Martin del Potro and, to the nation’s exasperation, Andy Murray, who has struggled to regain his form since last January’s hip surgery, won’t compete in the men’s competition. What these absences do mean, however, is that the draw opens up for more wildcards.
Novak Djokovic enters the tournament as the favourite after a commanding victory with Serbia over Spain in the inaugural ATP Cup, also held in Australia earlier in the month. A driving factor for him was the immense pro-Serbian support, with the world number two telling the crowd, “you guys took it to the next level”. But a more significant factor for Djokovic is surely his hard court advantage over his main rival Rafael Nadal; Djokovic has now won nine consecutive hard court matches against the world number one.
Nadal is playing some of the best tennis of his career and won’t be fazed by statistics, however. Last season saw him claim two grand slams, and rightly so. His performance in the final of the French Open was glittering, swatting aside Dominic Thiem with power and guile, and he was gutsy when needed in a US Open victory over Daniil Medvedev lasting almost five hours, a match described by expert Steve Flink as “the best played US Open final ever”. With two of the last three US Opens to his name, Nadal has demonstrated that he can deal with the bounce and pace of the hard court surface on which the Australian Open is also contested. All the same, history proposes a Djokovic win under the Melbourne sun − the Serbian has seven Australian Open titles to Nadal’s one.
Alongside these, Roger Federer completes this triumvirate of obvious shouts. Though no spring chicken at the age of 38, the world number three is still potent. Notably, his backhand shots improved in 2018, being a defining factor in his victory over Nadal at Wimbledon and allowing him to further stretch his opponents through pinpoint wide shots, grinding his adversaries into exhaustion.
For sure, these ‘big three’ monopolise the men’s game, with 55 of the last 66 major titles falling into their clutches. So, do any other players stand much of a chance?
One undefinable quantity with a point to prove is Marin Čilić. After a substandard 2019, Čilić’s stock has fallen somewhat, meaning that he is not even seeded for this tournament. But the fact remains that he is armed with one of the most explosive serves in tennis, alongside the likes of John Isner (seeded 19th), amassing around a third of his points from aces, and his run to the semi-finals of this tournament in 2018 speaks for his potential. However, his abysmal record against top 10 opponents may be tested before the late rounds due to his being unseeded, and this could cause him to come unstuck, whereas other high-profile names like Stan Wawrinka, Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have a more streamlined route to the later stages.
Any British hopes of a glorious Australasian escapade look unlikely. Dan Evans, who captured hearts in the summer with his modest Wimbledon third-round trot, has achieved a seeding for the first time and beat Australian starlet Alex de Minaur in one of the ATP Cup’s longest matches. Ultimately, Evans is a man who has never advanced beyond the fourth round at any grand slam and who has lost more matches than he has won. Kyle Edmund reached the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018 but would do well to advance beyond the third round after a troublesome 2019.
Players from the host nation are set for mixed success. Nick Kyrgios (seeded 24th), tennis’ very own stick of dynamite, won four of his five ATP Cup matches, and could misbehave his way into a last 16 position alongside his compatriot de Minaur (seeded 20th). Either going any further would be a surprise. The last Australian to win the competition was Mark Edmondson all the way back in 1976, though if it’s any encouragement for his sporting descendants, he did do so from a ranking of 212th. Edmondson remains the lowest-ranked player to ever win a grand slam.
Far more feasible for Australia is victory in the women’s tournament. That’s because they boast the world’s number one, Ashleigh Barty, who burst onto the world stage last year. One of her biggest qualities is that she doesn’t know when she’s beaten. Barty is the comeback queen. Last year, she won after being a set down on 13 occasions, including in the French Open semi-final against Amanda Asiminova, which led to her winning her first Grand Slam. Winning over 80 per cent of her games last year, Barty is a force to be reckoned with.
The bookies’ favourite is Serena Williams, but despite her victory in the recent Auckland Open, she is far past her best. Williams hasn’t won a Grand Slam in three years, though she has reached four finals in that time. Last year’s Wimbledon final lasted a disappointing 56 minutes, and disgruntled viewers had Williams to blame for that; the American made 26 unforced errors and effectively handed the game to Halep, though Halep does deserve praise for her clinical performance. Halep is outstanding at returning the ball, too. In recent years, she has won nearly 50% of her return games, placing her far above her rivals. Halep should be considered above Williams for this tournament, therefore.
In a sport dominated for so long by an exclusive bracket of players, it finally feels like fresher faces are taking over. Naomi Osaka is the reigning champion and the world number three, fast chasing the status of the deadliest server in the game. Belinda Bencic has climbed back into the top ten and is only 22. Alongside usual outside shouts like Petra Kvitova, Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, who won the recent Brisbane international, these youthful names should be noted. Women’s tennis is witnessing a changing of the guard.
If there is a changing of the guard taking place, where does British star Johanna Konta fit into this group of players shuffling their way up and down the rankings? Having been comfortable in the upper tier of players for a number of years, she still awaits a grand slam title to cement her place as one of her generation’s standout players. Perhaps her biggest drawback is her stubborn devotion to be an aggressive baseline player, seldom approaching the net, which could count against her when faced with commanding net players like Barty. Konta also has injury concerns which relegate her to the status of an outsider for the tournament, but she is nevertheless seeded 12th and a run to the quarter-finals would not be surprising.
And there we have it: a short guide to the Michelin star menu of talent that is the world of tennis. The traditional household names look like a safe choice for this Australian Open, especially in the men’s game, but there are plenty of exquisite underdogs for viewers to feast their eyes upon.
Image: Jimmy Harris via Wikimedia Commons